When Symantha asked our SHU writing community about adding diversity to her manuscript, I immediately thought, 1) Wow! This is someone who is being proactive and adding diverse characters to her work, and 2) How thoughtful of her to ask the writing community for advice during the process.
Believe it or not, as a writer of color myself, I would’ve done the same thing. Why? Because the default characters in my own manuscript are either black, mixed race or ethnic, but even writing from the POV of other ethnicities, I find that I still need to do some basic research.
My current WIP is an alternate Earth sci-fi/fantasy, but the characters are all based on real life cultures and religions that I don’t possess an intimate knowledge of. For example, one of my characters is Middle Eastern in appearance (dark hair and olive skin) and has some beliefs that are similar to Islam.
Now, I have friends who are Muslim, but I do not pretend to have some kind of great knowledge of the religion or customs associated with Middle Eastern cultures. Even within the Middle East, there are vast differences in language, further division within the religion of Islam, and different cultural practices, so how would I represent this character well in my fantasy world?
There are many stereotypes associated with Middle Eastern peoples, but what allowed me to steer clear of those was checking myself for what types of stereotypes about black people made me cringe. Yes, that list was long and while it didn’t match up perfectly with the stereotypes for Middle Easterners, I had something to work with.
How might I do that research, you say? Why, thank you for asking. I’ve got a powerpoint presentation and a whole entire lesson plan to help you do that, but in the interest of helping out the Googlers of the world, I’ll share a couple of resources you can find online. For additional questions, please email me.
- I highly recommend picking up a copy of Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s Writing the Other: A Practical Approach . This little booklet of truth is written by two workshop leaders (one black and one white) who wanted to help people write the “other.” The book goes beyond just race, but explores writing quality characters that have diverse backgrounds and are often marginalized in society like people with disabilities, people who have different sexual preferences, age, etc. There are several exercises to help you along the way too.
- I recently stumbled upon this BuzzFeed article (yes, I went there for our millennial readers) that lists the fundamentals of writing the “other” by Latino writer of color, Daniel Jose Older. If anything, this list should empower you to write from the “other” perspective, not discourage you.
It’s easy to write what you know, but it’s more rewarding to challenge yourself to go beyond your comfort zone and write from the perspective of someone who is unknown to you. Explore those possibilities. Maybe you’re a super religious cat lady (stereotype alert!) who wants to write from the perspective of an inner city youth. Sure it might be challenging as hell, but imagine the victory lap you’ll run when and if you finally get it right (after you test it with some trusted readers, of course).
When I hear about writers like Symantha who are concerned about how she portrays a diverse character or whether she is overthinking it, I want to reach out and give her a virtual hug and tell her that any step towards diversity is a step in the right direction. No, don’t do it because it’s a trend and you think it might sell. No, don’t do it because you think it’s the right thing to do. Do it because you feel it in your gut that diversity is needed to add layers to your world, to give your soul a good thrashing, and most importantly, to expand your skills as a writer.
I’ll close by saying that diversity in your writing is and always will be a good investment in your writing career and in the development of your craft. There is no better way to be a better writer than exploration, discovery, and challenge. I’ll leave those leaning toward staying on the well-worn path with the last stanza of Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” for inspiration and encouragement to always strive to master the craft of writing.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.